Belarus - between Poland, Lithuania and Russia - the great unknown!
Thursday, July 3rd, 2014
Crossing the border from Russia into Belarus, one feels the difference immediately! This is as hard for me to believe as it is for you, but that it the truth of it. The wild and tousled countryside West of Smolensk is replaced by an altogether more orderly, but quite empty landscape where man and beast toil with the plough and tractor to allow the fertile soils of Belarus to nourish corn, rye, barley, and wheat.
Five times bigger than Switzerland and with a population of under 10 million, Belarus seems to be one of Europe's mysteries. Buffeted by the winds of fortune between Poland-Lithuania and Russia, trampled over by invading French and German armies during the times of Napoleon and Hitler, and singed by the fallout of the Chernobyl's radioactive cloud, the survival of the Belarussian people is an achievement in itself.
Although most people speak Russian, the Belarussian language has equal status and tends to be spoken in the villages and used for official presentations by government officials, such as the lady from the Ministry of Culture and Ideology, at Dubrovni Folk Festival. The language appears to have been put into written form in Cyrillic, Arabic and Latin script at various stages of its development and is now written in Cyrillic. To me, it sounds like someone reading a Russian fairy tale to very small children while eating a boiled sweet and sweeping a stone floor with a bristly brush.
Although it was a shame to (temporarily) say goodbye to my horses in Russia, it has been great to have fresh horses in Belarus. My steed is a large Palamino stallion, who announces his presence to all and sundry with loud whinnies and much rolling of his head and eyes!
The journey from the East of Belarus has taken us again along the banks of the Dnieper. Being one of Europe's largest rivers, it is no surprise that we should end up camping on its banks in different countries and on different occasions. While the Dnieper runs to 4km wide by the time it reaches Ukraine, nearer to its source, it is a clean and calm river bordered by long grass, willows and sandy banks.
The summer heat is back and this has led us to set out as early as 5:30 (zzzz)in the morning just as the cool of the night is being lifted away by the warm summer sun. The light is beautiful at this time, casting dappled shadows through the leaves of the trees that line our route. All of the Belarussian wildlife seems to be out and about too, including darting deer, smiling but suspicious wild boar and some pretty long black grass snakes, which zigzag lazily away from the horses hooves just in time to avoid an incident.
After one such early start, we stopped at the site of a spring (known as Zena's spring) next to a crystal clear and cool river and a wooden cottage, surrounded by long grass, wild flowers, billowing willows and small yapping dogs. The cool river provided a perfect foil for the heat of the day and as we were resting in the shade, the old lady of the cottage appeared as if by magic and started turning the hay she had cut with a scythe for her calf's winter fodder.
Babushka Lyuda lived in the cottage as had her parents before her. All her needs of water were satisfied by the spring, which provided her with cool water in the summer and "warm" water in the winter. Most of Lyuda's remaining needs were satisfied by her kitchen garden, which was a classic collage of potatoes, dill, onions, roses, cabbages, garlic, and parsley. Remaining pretty into old age, with her curls of white hair, shiny blue eyes, and angular tanned face, Babushka Lyuda lived alone, except for her hens, calf, dogs and piglets that she was fattening up for the winter. As we were settling down for a lunch of bread, local honey, fresh milk and eggs, Babushka Lyuba presented us with a bouquet of dill, parsley, spring onions and garlic and refused to take any money. Lyuda's grandson, Misha, had come to visit and all she wanted was for Misha to stroke the horses, which he did with some nervousness as "Marlboro", sensing a chance for mischief, rolled his eyes and tossed his head dramatically, letting out some whinnies for good measure.
After a dinner with Nikolai and Eleanor at their summer cottage outside Minsk, I am waiting for the Independence Day celebrations in Minsk to start. Strangely, although Minsk is a capital city, its wide green avenues, parks and laid back atmosphere don't seem to be too far removed from Zena's spring and the the all-embracing Belarussian countryside. Calm prevails, the nearest remaining state to how it used to be in at the Soviet Union.